January 26th, 2005

Divided, Companies Fight for Right to Plug Kids' Food

By Sarah Ellison
Wall Street Journal

Under pressure from legislators and advocacy groups to curb advertising to children, food companies and ad agencies have created a lobbying group to defend the right to advertise to kids.

The new group, the Alliance for American Advertising, is the most ambitious effort yet to deflect government regulation or other intervention in food advertising aimed at kids, which critics link to high rates of childhood obesity.

The alliance includes three giant food companies—General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co. and Kraft Foods Inc.—which also rank as the top three advertisers of packaged-foods to children, by virtue of their breakfast cereals, with combined annual spending on kids’ ads that approaches $380 million in the U.S. Other alliance members include the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The alliance’s purpose, according to Wally Snyder, president and chief of the American Advertising Federation, another alliance member, is to defend the industry’s First Amendment rights to advertise to children and to promote its willingness to police itself. Some members have been meeting on and off for months, although the group has come together formally only in the past week or so.

The alliance is wading into territory most food companies have taken pains to avoid. In a one-page position statement, the alliance disputes that there is a link between advertising and childhood obesity. “There is not a correlation between advertising trends and recent childhood obesity trends,” according to the statement. The document cites former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy J. Muris, who said advertising bans are “impractical, illegal and ineffective.” It also cites two separate bills introduced last year, one by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, the other by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, warning that “greater restrictions on advertising to children would be difficult legally to design or implement, and ineffective in combating obesity.”

Mr. Snyder says the alliance will focus on collecting research that examines whether advertising and childhood obesity are linked. “There have been all kinds of allegations,” he says. “We just want to get the facts out there.”

While the alliance members all want to fend off government regulation, there are already divisions forming over tactics. Earlier this month, Kraft announced that it would stop running print, radio and TV advertising for products such as Oreos and Chips Ahoy! aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds. Its strategy is similar to the one its 84%-owner, Altria Group Inc., has followed for Philip Morris in the tobacco industry, calling for more restrictive measures than the rest of the industry was willing to accept.

But the other members may want to take a harder line against ad limits, and some worry Kraft’s move can be construed as a tacit admission of responsibility for rising obesity.

Marybeth Thorsgaard, a spokeswoman for General Mills, says that instead of a ban on advertising to children of a certain age, “we talk about balanced moderation and exercise.” She added that the company follows the advertising guidelines set out by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a small industry group that monitors children’s advertising and which is part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Those guidelines say food companies should advertise truthfully and accurately to children and should use appropriate messages that children should understand. It doesn’t lay out specific age restrictions for advertising to children. A spokeswoman says Kellogg follows CARU’s guidelines.

Late last year, even as Kraft was finalizing its decision to curtail its kids ads, it agreed to join General Mills and Kellogg in the industrywide alliance.  “Kraft is committed to implementing its new advertising initiative whether or not other companies adopt similar approaches,” says Mark Berlind, Kraft’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. “We want to work with the rest of the industry to find ways to strengthen self-regulation.”

Advertising to kids has become such a hot potato for the $500 billion food industry that several food industry rivals, including Kraft, General Mills, Pepsico Inc. and McDonald’s Corp., are attending a forum to air the issues related to obesity and advertising. Set for tomorrow in Washington, the gathering is being sponsored by the government-affiliated Institute of Medicine and will include marketing firms and child psychologists.

The food industry’s effort to prevent legislation and potential litigation in some ways echoes earlier efforts by the tobacco and alcohol industries to prevent federal restrictions of their products.

The spirits industry voluntarily stopped advertising liquor on network television in the late 1940s. And in 1969, Congress passed legislation banning cigarette ads on electronic media, including TV. The tobacco industry embraced the ban because otherwise health advocates would have been entitled to equal air time to counter the message of cigarette ads.

Elizabeth Lascoutx, CARU’s director, says big food companies often change their ads to comply with the unit’s guidelines, a sign that the group can change their behavior. But some critics wonder if CARU, with a small legal staff, has the firepower to go up against the hundreds of ads the food industry produces each year.

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